Minnesota is on the verge of a seemingly endless and expensive cycle of building new prisons, reports Paying the Price: The Rising Cost of Prison, a new study released today by Minnesota Planning. Without a change in policy direction, corrections spending will consume a larger share of the state's budget and crowd out other priorities such as education and health.
Depending on policy decisions, Minnesota could need two or more prisons in the next five years, each costing up to $100 million to build and another $25 million to operate each year. State spending for criminal justice increased 23 percent during this bie nnium and is the fastest growing area of the state budget.
Spending for prisons nearly quadrupled since 1980 and is projected to increase another 45 percent to $234 million in 1999. The state's adult prison population doubled over the last 10 years and also is estimated to grow 45 percent by 2005, reaching almost 6,700 inmates.
An increasing youth population, rising arrest rates, the crackdown on drugs and dozens of new and enhanced criminal penalties have fueled the prison population boom. While Minnesota offenders already serve among the longest prison terms in the nation, continual boosts in sentences will drive the prison population higher and worsen bed shortages.
"Minnesota simply cannot pour dollar after dollar into prisons without first finding a responsible way to pay for them," said Governor Arne H. Carlson. "We need to stop lurching from budget to budget and take a look at the big picture. We do not want to mortgage our children's future by committing hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars to more prisons."
The report lays out several short- and long-term directions for Minnesota policy-makers, from increasing use of community-based penalties to expanding or leasing more prison space. Minnesota's Governor, Legislature and corrections officials have several options available:
1) Continue to increase prison sentences and build more prisons.
2) Hold the line on increasing criminal penalties and delay the need for a new prison in 2005. Aggressively expand space at current prisons and acquire more space from county jails and other states.
3) Expand use of community-based penalties while holding the line on increasing criminal penalties, delaying the need for a new prison in 2005.
4) Adjust sentences of nonviolent offenders, saving 270 to 470 beds or more. Coupled with other actions, this could have the largest impact on the need for an additional prison.
5) Take strong actions to trim costs, such as contracting for private management, which would free up dollars but not beds.
6) Invest in prevention, reducing future but not near-term prison populations.
The report warns that none of the choices is easy or cheap, and that no single course of action can alone solve the prison space shortage. It urges taking farsighted actions now to reduce or eliminate the need for future prisons and adopting a disciplined , cost-efficient approach to acquiring prison space.